Bakers born and bred
TV chef James Martin is back with a new series – United Cakes of America – which sees him travel Stateside. He also visited East Anglia recently. James explains why he’ll always be a chef first and foremost.
It sounds like a dream job if ever there was one – driving around the USA, sampling the country’s desserts and adding your own spin to the recipes.
James Martin did just that for his latest TV series, James Martin’s United Cakes of America, on the Good Food Channel. It was a journey that took him from Washington along the east coast, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Brooklyn, in a 1980s Cadillac.
And there’s more to the series than just cakes – James also looks at the areas visited and their history. He describes the series as “a really fascinating journey, and great fun”. It shows that there’s more to America than doughnuts and pretzels.
James speaks of individual bakeries that have been in towns for years, and describes the country’s culture as “fantastic”. “As a country it’s only 200 or so years old and because of that their love of baking is like we used to be in the 1930s,” he says.
“It’s so deep-seated – you do it, your grandmother does it, your kids love doing it. Everybody does it. It goes much deeper than just doing it on Thanksgiving. More so than I ever dreamed of and much more than over here. People bake much, much more in America than they do here.”
James explains that there are still multinational chains, but then there is Mamma’s Apple Pie Shop “on the corner” which has been going for 40 years. “One thing you do learn from going to America is that as much as they embrace the old traditions, they embrace the new like no-one else in the world,” he says.
“Their knowledge of technology and their mindset of turning something into a successful business is just something to stand back in awe of. The marketing, the merchandising… the t-shirts, the caps, the websites. It keeps the bakeries going.
“We went to a cup cake shop and they sell 10-15,000 cupcakes a day. And they’ve got six bakeries. They make a quarter of a million pounds a day. I know for a fact the busiest and most successful restaurant in the UK makes a quarter of a million pounds in a week.”
James says that he loved Harlem, where there were “so many characters”. “In fact it’s really the characters that make America,” he says.
“As chefs we look at America and we think it’s one of the top three places in the world for food, and not many people outside the industry would think that. Japan probably top, America second, the UK third and France fourth. You wouldn’t have said that 15 years ago!”
James recalls one character he met called Cake Man Raven, who makes red velvet cakes, and the workers at Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan. “We met all kinds of people – from peach farmers who reminded me of my folks to the ultra-modern businesses of New York,” he says.
“You put a camera in front of anyone in America and they’re great!”
James also cooked some dishes himself. As well as talking to people and tasting the desserts, he adapted things a little when he got back into his kitchen.
“When I did the Mediterranean show for Good Food, you could do the cooking in this country because most of the ingredients are available here,” he says. “But if you tried to make like-for-like versions of American desserts here, you couldn’t. Certain ingredients are better over there than they are over here, and vice-versa.
“So I took the basic recipes and tweaked them to make them more accessible.”
James has been on our screens for many years now. Some know him from his work on the BBC series Ready Steady Cook, others know him from taking part in Strictly Come Dancing, and he is familiar to others through his weekly BBC programme, Saturday Kitchen.
He visited King’s Lynn in December 2012, to promote his range of culinary products at the Sainsbury’s superstore on the Hardwick Industrial Estate. “I think the key to this game is longevity, and never to forget that you’re a chef first and foremost. That feeds the television work,” he says.
“It’s always been about the food for me. If you can get that balance you can get longevity.”
James Martin’s United Cakes of America is new and exclusive to Good Food, Sundays – Wednesdays at 9pm from February 24 (Sky / HD 247, Virgin 260).
Do try this at home
There is a baking craze in the UK at the moment, amply demonstrated by the success of the BBC series The Great British Bake Off. ames says: “I think the secret to why it’s so successful on television is that there’s a right or a wrong. You can get an instant failure and that’s enjoyable to watch.
”Failure on telly is always good to watch, as is getting it right. Part of the success of that programme is watching people pass or fail. For me, in my industry, I’ve been cooking all my life, and pastry is a very fine art and a skill that you develop over years. But it does mean that when you go to places like America, you do come back and get ideas of how to make it easier for people and to inspire people to have a go at home.”
James advises anyone who wants to be a pastry chef to get a proper food mixer and a set of scales – and be prepared for lots of trial and error. “Baking is the kind of skill someone will try once, fail and never go back to it again,” he says.
”When you’ve bought all the ingredients, mixed it all together, put it in the oven and then take it out only to find it’s a disaster, it’s difficult. You need to spend another two hours trying it again and trying to understand where it went wrong.
”You’re always going to fail – I still get things wrong – but without failure you won’t succeed.”